The Only Alphabet

August Kleinzahler

  • The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman
    Farrar, Straus, 316 pp, £25.50, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 374 29384 0

Karin Roffman’s superb biography of John Ashbery’s early life concludes with a photograph of the poet striding towards the camera. He is a tallish, handsome young man. The photograph was taken in the autumn of 1955 when he was 28, shortly after he arrived in Montpellier to begin his Fulbright Fellowship. He looks to have the world at his feet.

Earlier that year Ashbery had been turned down by the Fulbright committee for the fifth time. This greatly disappointed him: he was desperate to travel – he had ‘not been literally anywhere’ – and was stuck in a dreary job as a copywriter at the publishing house McGraw-Hill. The manuscript he had submitted for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize had been rejected. The judge was Auden, the contemporary poet whose work meant the most to Ashbery and who for the second year in a row felt he couldn’t ‘pick a “publishable manuscript”’. Ashbery’s painter friend Jane Freilicher, sensing his despondency, invited him to join her and Grace Hartigan and their boyfriends on a trip to Mexico. The landscape and new palette of colours thrilled him. On his return to New York three weeks later he learned that the Fulbright committee had reversed its decision and that Auden had finally chosen his manuscript for the Yale prize. ‘Having left New York City with a long future of dull office work stretching out ahead of him, John felt it was nearly a miracle to return three weeks later to a book contract and a steamer ticket to France.’

It must be strange for a writer, or almost anyone apart from movie stars, sports heroes or heads of state, to have a biography written about them during their lifetime. This one appeared a couple of months before Ashbery’s death, at the age of 90, on 3 September. In fact, he was actively complicit in the choice of biographer and the assembling of the book. He invited Karin Roffman to his home in Hudson, New York, not far from Bard College, where they both taught. It was 2005; Ashbery was 78. Roffman had been expecting ‘a mid-century-modern glass cube and found instead a large, gloomy-looking 19th-century Victorian manse’ filled with a curious array of bric-à-brac, much of which had come from Ashbery’s parents’ farm or his maternal grandparents. Roffman made a number of visits to the house and spent an entire summer there cataloguing objects before she proposed to Ashbery that she write a biography of his early life. ‘Ashbery responded that he assumed I already was.’

If you ever spent any time around John Ashbery, or even observed him from a distance, perhaps at a reading, the last place you’d imagine him to be from would be an apple and cherry farm in western New York State, hard by the shores of Lake Ontario. He was rather patrician in bearing and had beautiful manners, soft-spoken, with a droll, sometimes wicked sense of humour: he would seem at home at all the vernissages and salons of Manhattan or the consulates and cultural centres of any European capital. I always found him among the most entertaining and delightful of companions. But a farmer’s son? It’s hard to imagine anything more incongruous.

I’m always fascinated by the succession of fortuities that determine the lives and careers of major artists and how easily their achievements might never have happened. Ashbery’s parents were unremarkable, if you leave aside his father’s unpredictable, foul temper. But his maternal grandfather, Henry Lawrence, was indeed a remarkable man, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, who had written his PhD on the new field of X-ray technology. He was also fluent in Greek and Latin and a good businessman. After his grandfather’s death Ashbery told an interviewer that Henry Lawrence was the only person he had ever unconditionally loved.

Because there was no kindergarten in the village, Ashbery went to live with his grandparents in Rochester and went to the local elementary school. Their house was large and Victorian, and filled with books and keepsakes, much like the house in Hudson that Roffman describes. This was no accident. Ashbery’s happiest early memories were of his grandparents’ houses. Their vacation home in Pultneyville, looking out onto Lake Ontario, was the setting for many of Ashbery’s childhood summers. It was his favourite place and remained so in his imagination. Whenever he could he spent weekends with his grandparents, often to his father’s annoyance. He liked the smell of his grandfather’s pipe and, even before he could read them, the feel and presence of the many books on the shelves.

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